Yearning for a Unified Society in 1960s America

Coretta Scott King stands at a podium and delivers a speech.

Coretta Scott King has an AAUW educational fund named in her honor. Photo courtesy of Chicago Urban League Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library

August 21, 2013

I am a child of the 1970s, so regrettably I have no personal recollections to offer on the previous decade, but I am fascinated by 1963. The year was a pivotal one for American society, and also for AAUW — the passage of the Equal Pay Act, the arrival of The Feminine Mystique on bookstore shelves, the creation of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, and, of course, the March on Washington. On August 28, 1963, over 250,000 people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial where they heard Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The march is arguably the most important moment in our country’s civil rights movement.

1963 also marked another, lesser-known event: the 15th anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In observance of this milestone, AAUW leaders drafted a letter that was sent to all branches. They wrote that “human rights know no national boundaries” and that “violations of fundamental freedoms and the inherent rights of man in any part of the globe have repercussions which affect each one of us — whether one considers Buddhists in South Vietnam, Jews in Nazi Germany, missionaries in the Congo or Negroes in Birmingham.” Then, in a symbolic call to action, they urged branches to throw their full support behind proposed civil rights legislation and to work toward reaching interracial understanding in their communities.

Letter of thanks from Coretta Scott King to AAUW, November 1, 1968

Letter of thanks from Coretta Scott King to AAUW, November 1, 1968

Branch members immediately responded. As an example, the AAUW of North Shore (NY) Branch conducted a study on racial imbalance in their local schools. One member from each school district interviewed her superintendent to identify racial issues in the schools. A report was created and as a result, two “watchdog” committees were set up, one to deal with racial issues and the other to work on achieving a fair racial balance in housing.

Throughout the 1960s, most of the branch work was solely study-based but still highly valuable to communities, some of which were just beginning to grapple with these issues. By 1968, AAUW leaders realized that studies, while valuable, were simply not sufficient to begin to solve the civil rights problems plaguing society.

That year, the AAUW Board of Directors meeting coincided with race riots that erupted in Washington, D.C. In response to the crisis surrounding them, the board took a bold step and created a new, unifying vision for the organization: the Action for Unified Society. This new initiative aimed “to identify the ‘left-out’ groups in [branch] communities — the poor, the minorities, the disaffected and disadvantaged youth — and to creatively devise projects that will utilize members’ talents to help bring these groups into the mainstream of American life.”

Action could take many forms. In addition to volunteering time to create programs to counter racism, action could also mean refusing to frequent businesses that violated civil rights laws, or examining one’s own attitudes for latent racism, or speaking up to confront injustice wherever it was encountered.

As part of Action for Unified Society, AAUW also took a bold step in creating the Coretta Scott King Educational Fund. On June 19, 1968, AAUW leaders had witnessed King give a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in which she urged women to unite and participate in a “campaign for conscience” to fight the “triple of evils of racism, poverty, and war.” The member-supported fund provided scholarships to deserving female students studying nonviolence, peace studies, and African American history. King believed women held an important place in solving societal problems and that much of their power remained untapped. In thanking AAUW, she expressed that it was her hope that the fund would “eventually give to us all the new light, new knowledge, and new understanding for which my husband and I have so desperately yearned.”

Next week, visitors will again march on Washington in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of this historic event but also to address the still unresolved problems of racism in this country. We have come a long way since the first march, but in 2013 the road ahead calls for our continued commitment.

By:   |   August 21, 2013

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